Omitted for decades, Milwaukee architect Alonzo Robinson Jr.'s name becomes part of Milwaukee Fire Department

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  • Tom Barrett
    Mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin (1953-)

Pioneering architect Alonzo Robinson Jr. once said, "You build something and it becomes part of you."

And on Tuesday, his name officially became part of the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building in a ceremony that honored Robinson, the building's late designer and the first Black architect in the city and state.

"My father always sat down with me and said, 'Son, I realize I am a pioneer in my profession, however, I'd rather be recognized for my work,'" said one of Robinson's sons, Wayne Robinson, as his name was unveiled on the 1962 building at 711 W. Wells Street.

Tuesday's unveiling was a day of celebration for a man whose designs helped shape Milwaukee's landscape, including the headquarters for the Polish Association of America, the Doyne Park shelter house, the Hillcrest Nursing Home, the McKinley Marina and the Central City Development Corp, in addition to numerous churches, including Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church, 2567 N. 8th St.

The Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building would be named in honor of Alonzo Robinson, who became Milwaukee's and Wisconsin's first black architect, under legislation being considered by the Milwaukee Common Council.
The Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building would be named in honor of Alonzo Robinson, who became Milwaukee's and Wisconsin's first black architect, under legislation being considered by the Milwaukee Common Council.

And it was an event that honored a strong family whose future generations have continued the legacy of striving and succeeding that was set by Robinson and his wife of 53 years, Theresa L. Robinson.

But it was also a recognition of a wrong done to Robinson decades ago when his name was excluded from the Fire Department's records and the dedication of the building that he was the lead architect in designing.

Fire Chief Aaron Lipski said he found Robinson's name on a single Fire Department document near the bottom of a list, even there "stripped of as much as the simple recognition of his earned title of architect."

Theresa Robinson, center, the widow of Alonzo Robinson, is joined by her family, friends and local officials following the renaming of the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building that is now named after her husband  on Tuesday.
Theresa Robinson, center, the widow of Alonzo Robinson, is joined by her family, friends and local officials following the renaming of the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration Building that is now named after her husband on Tuesday.

"Please accept on behalf of the Milwaukee Fire Department our deepest apologies for what was likely not a simple clerical oversight but rather a visible and painful slight based not on Alonzo Robinson's talent or expertise but on the color of his skin," Lipski said to Robinson's family.

Lipski said the department hoped it had done the Robinson family proud with Tuesday's event and that it was honored to be part of celebrating Robinson's legacy.

Top officials, including Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, Common Council President Cavalier Johnson and County Executive David Crowley were among those who spoke at the event attended by a room full of onlookers.

It was the culmination of an effort that began more than a year ago, when Robinson's son, Kim Robinson, filed an application with the city asking to change the building's name. The Common Council and Barrett approved of the renaming in February.

Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski speaks at a ceremony to rename the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration building after Alonzo Robinson Jr. on Tuesday. Robinson was the first African American architect licensed by the State of Wisconsin, and the City of Milwaukee’s first Black registered Municipal Architect.
Milwaukee Fire Chief Aaron Lipski speaks at a ceremony to rename the Milwaukee Fire Department Administration building after Alonzo Robinson Jr. on Tuesday. Robinson was the first African American architect licensed by the State of Wisconsin, and the City of Milwaukee’s first Black registered Municipal Architect.

Johnson, the legislation's lead sponsor, on Tuesday said that when Kim and Wayne Robinson told their father's story at a Common Council committee, "you started to fall in love with this family." He said he got to know the family's commitment to service, the city and the nation over the last year.

Barrett said the naming was "overdue."

"It is something that rectifies in a very small way many of the racial injustices that have occurred in this community and in this country over centuries, and it's a tribute, again, to understanding that an individual ... can break down barriers if he thinks big and believes big," Barrett said.

Robinson's work in Milwaukee began in the 1950s

The World War II veteran came to Milwaukee to become an architect in the early 1950s after he received his architecture degree from Howard University.

He worked as a municipal architect from 1953 to 1967 in the city's Bureau of Bridges and Buildings and for Milwaukee County, where he retired as managing architect in September 1998, according to the city. He also practiced architecture in the private sector, including founding the firm Alonzo Robinson Architect and Sons.

Robinson passed away in 2000.

His daughter, Jean Robinson, recounted the contributions of Black architects and the obstacles they overcame — racial discrimination, segregation, lack of professional opportunity and more — to pave the way for her father and others.

It took courage in addition to a commitment to diversity and inclusion, she said, for city leaders to hire her father after he graduated from Howard University and for current city leaders to vote to honor his imprint on the city.

And she honored the work of her father to chart a path in the profession.

"If Dad had not been on a 50-year quest to make his profession more inclusive by shattering glass ceilings and removing all obstacles, we wouldn't be here this morning," she said.

But much remains to be done, she said.

Despite great strides, she said, the question remains: Where do we go from here?

Contact Alison Dirr at 414-224-2383 or adirr@jrn.com. Follow her on Twitter @AlisonDirr.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Milwaukee honors pioneering Black architect Alonzo Robinson Jr.

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